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December 21, 2015

A Reflection on “Nothing can be Taught”

I reflected upon my interpretation at different times as a teacher.
of Sri Aurobindo’s: 'The first principle of true teaching is that nothing can be taught.'1

When I started teaching I wanted to be a good teacher. I planned my classes, used many resources and TLM (Teaching Learning Material), had many classes with activities, attempted to open the minds of children, and took a lot of notes. A workshop called the 'Stewardship for a New Emergence' helped me notice my growth as a teacher and capture the fleeting insights - it helped me be more patient and capable of listening to children. At this time, I interpreted the first principle of teaching as the learning I was going through to be a better teacher and a better person through my experience. I took the principle to refer to spiritual experiences that are our own. For example, in a typical classroom I would teach different points of view, or of looking at something to support diversity or handle misconceptions and children would work with TLM and at times the computer2.

As I continued working with children I noticed that my best classes were not the ones I prepared the most. Some classes had a flow and some, in spite of planning (and a few because of much planning) were hard. An almost identical incident or comment from children that derailed one class would have no impact in another. I noticed that this had less to do with the environment around me or what children experienced at home and more to do with the environment I was carrying with me to the classrooms and who I was being while I was in the class. I also noticed children were learning more when I was instructing less. Practically, my classes were getting more activity based with much peer learning and less lecturing. I often used computers with children creating projects to learn the material. I read up on constructivist theory and learned that each child (and adult) builds their own knowledge and I only needed to create an environment to let learning happen. I noticed that it was my 'I have a PhD and can show other ways of doing this' ego that was coming in the way of learning and was able to consciously make a choice to let opportunities to teach go, and let opportunities for learning flourish. My interpretation of Sri Aurobindo’s first principle at that time was that this also applies to practical learning through a constructivist approach3.

Some time has passed since then and I no longer see spiritual growth and practical learning as two distinct applications of the first principle of true teaching. It appears that every true learning is with the engagement of our entire being and is spiritual and helps us follow our core. Practically, now the environment I am working to create at STEM Land is such that a session with children is about self-discovery. It’s not about a procedure or the underlying concept, but about their experience. The environment offers choice and looks to the children to take responsibility for their learning. I do instruct, children do projects, but it happens when the need comes up from the children4.


1. Sri. Aurobindo, (1910) The Human Mind, Karmayogin.
2.  Ranganathan, S. (2014) Program to encourage critical thinking in children – 2013-2014. Grant report by Udavi School to SAIIER.
3.  Ranganathan S., Anand B., Kothandaraman S. and Gunasekar V. (Dec 2015) Using programming with rural children For Learning to think mathematically, epiSTEM 6 HBCSE, IITB.
4.  Ranganathan S., STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) Land and Resource Center (2015) Grant proposal to SAIIER.

November 30, 2015

Stroll through STEM Land

I made a 3 minute video of a stroll through STEM Land on a Sat. We (Aura Auro team) are together at the same time with multiple classes and a few children from around who join us. Here is the video:

A few notes:
- The display for STEM Land was made last week by a few children. It switches between a 5  sets of ways of how STEM Land is displayed. The children soldered the board together programmed an arduino to switch between these (with help from Naveen). Here is a blog post with more about this.
- We recently added dobble, blockus and another abalone to STEM Land. Blokus is another great strategy game and dobble is excellent for observation with different scaling. These additions are popular and extremely good in brain twisting skills. 
(We also got bounce off and jungle speed which are also very popular though I am not as convinced about their utility to learning :).)
- Children have been working quite a bit on Alice a 3D programming environment. This allows children to stretch the programming they were introduced to in scratch with a 2D stage to a 3D world. Here is a note on a game that Rati is creating.
- Blender has also picked up and few children children have learnt more or less on their own. Vaidegi also started putting the 3D printer in action first with things available online and then with learning blender herself this has added the idea of being able to create what you make in blender. The implicit mathematics and visualizing in modeling 3D images is excellent. With the printer you couple this with what can actually be made nicely.
- The 'fan' is a salvaged (thanks Lata) and the children added an external battery adapter (since the one inside had rusted) and Puni is explaining how he noticed that it acts more as an exhaust picking up things rather than what he expected of pushing things away.
- One group of students have become quite good at putting together mindstorm robots. The first one took them 2 weeks. This is their fifth robot and it just took them 2 days to put together. Here is a link with a snake robot in action.
- We have started salvaging old boards that I had around to get components we can use elsewhere and started a fix it lab. We fixed our first phone...yay, more on this later.
- A few Isai Ambalam children join us on Sat since its their day off and so do a few children from Auroville.

Playing, tinkering, making and learning is alive in STEM Land.

November 10, 2015

Experiences at STEM Land...

A few recent experiences at STEM Land that touched me...

- I have been touched how elder and younger children with similar interest are willing to work together as equals. How open elder children are to learn from younger children who have developed an expertise at something.
- We didn't spend a single rupee on labor to set up STEM Land. A big we (Aura Auro, our friends, volunteers and the children) did it ourselves.

- I had decided that I was going to let STEM Land self organize. One day some younger children came to me and told me that a couple of elder children had taken their laptops. I told them to work it out among themselves. About 10 mins later I had opportunity to work with the elder children and I enquired what happened. The elder children without batting an eyelid said that STEM Land is a place of work and they only took the laptops from two children who were playing computer games and not working seriously.

- We started working with the 9th grade girls only this term and in the beginning they would only stay in the games, materials room and not explore the technology room. This week I had a couple of girls working hard to create a story using programming in a 3-D environment and connect their mathematics to what they wanted to accomplish. Another group has been working on soldering a display for STEM Land with N.

- A few Isai Ambalam (the other school I work with) children come to STEM Land on Sat (their day off). They just felt at home and the Udavi children took care of them as their own when they are here for the whole day. A couple of Auroville children have started coming to STEM Land once a week and were unfamiliar with the programming environment and some Udavi children sat next to them and worked and helped them when they were stuck and I was only called once for help during two sessions of 1-1/2 hrs that they worked here.

- N who has completed his undergrad in EE wanted to volunteer at STEM Land I asked him not to worry about teaching children and just focus on using STEM Land facilities for his own growth. When he started working he realized that children could do many more things than him and learnt from them. 
When we were opening STEM Land we split the opening speech in 2 min sections between four of us at Aura Auro and the children were cheering for each of the youth. When we had completed the children cheered and asked N also to speak. He said, he comes here to learn and have fun.

- A couple of other youth who graduated from Udavi also come in on Sat in the afternoons and engage with children or play abalone among themselves. I get back to Aura Auro at 2:00 so I wasn't quite sure what to do when the Isai Ambalam kids were here the first week and needed to stay later. The youth said don't worry I'll stay here and lock up once they leave. Next week the Isai Ambalam kids were telling me that they will lock up themselves!

October 18, 2015

Opening of STEM Land and Hindu article

We had a wonderful opening at STEM Land with children from Udavi and Isai Ambalam hosting games and puzzles stalls and demonstrations of their work at STEM Land.  Here are photographs from the opening.

One interesting thing that happened was a couple of students Pree and Yuv decided to work together on creating "STEM Land" with a bunch of 7 segment displays and actually completed it over the duration of the event. They were also able to make the display blink as Subash who was observing their product asked for. They built this with an Arduino. Naveen who is volunteering at STEM Land is now working on soldering this together so STEM Land has a display at the entrance.

The Hindu covered the event. Here is a photo of the article. I can't find the uploaded version of the article so the pic would have to do.

There has been a lot of energy since the opening and children wanted to learn python and do 3-D modeling. We started, but the progress was slow and I researched for something more advanced than scratch that could do more and found Alice 3. A 3D world that is similar to scratch with drag and drop, but with significantly higher possibilities and complexity. Children are loving it a couple of them have been keen on blender as well. 

October 04, 2015

STEM Land inauguration on Friday 9 Oct 2015

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Land is an space exploring Science and Mathematics holistically with active use of Technology and Engineering (deriving principles from experience), its also a resource center with Math and Science materials, a maker space and a puzzles and games library. 
Its impossible to describe what STEM Land is, you need to experience it. Come join the adventure and start exploring STEM Land at the opening and a small fair at STEM Land @Udavi school at 10:45 a.m. on 9th Oct [Main Building], Auroville.
Please RSVP so we can have enough snacks (healthy and unhealthy) for everyone.

If you want to read more about STEM Land, please take a look at

Why STEM Land?
Though STEM is an acronym it can also refer to an approach to science and math education that is oriented towards application and making, tinkering and engineering. Its Land and not Lab because we are targeting a culture of learning rather than teaching and just as in France children learn French just fine and in Tamil Nadu children learn Tamil just fine, we hope that children will learn STEM naturally in STEM Land. 

The center is being initiated by the team (Bala, Sundar, Sanjeev, Vaidegi) of Aura Auro Design. But, we are well aware that the use of the center will involve a lot more and be driven by the interest of the children to learn.

Thanks to:
- Big Sanjeev and Udavi school for providing us space and up-ing it based on enthusiasm of the children.
- SAIIER who have provided us with the funding at just the right time to set up the center.
- Many other friends Ram, Gaurav, Shree, freecharge (company) for supporting materials that are being used at STEM Land.
- Many of our friends who helped us set up the center voluntarily, we spent no money on labor and did all the work ourselves and with friends. 
- Naturally, thanks to Aura for supporting Aura Auro Design without which this would have never become a reality.

October 02, 2015

Completed paper on children learning using computers

Many things have kept me away from blogging. This post is about the first, refining a paper that has been accepted at epiSTEM6. epiSTEM is a biennial Conference Series, to Review Research in Science, Technology and Mathematics Education conducted by Homi Baba Center of Science Education and IIT Bombay.

As Heidi Watts who helped me rethink the paper put it the paper now is about how children learn rather than about mathematics or computers. It has case studies on how children have learnt by trying to explain something to the computer through programming. 
Thanks also to Vaibhav who proof read the first version that got accepted, but both he and I knew it wasn't up to the mark then :).

Below is the abstract. Here is the link to the paper.
Using programming with rural children For Learning to think mathematically
Sanjeev Ranganathan, Bala Anand, Sundranandhan Kothandaraman, Vaidegi Gunasekar
Aura Auro Design, SAIIER (Auroville, India),
Is it possible to use computer labs in a rural setting that encourages reasoning, visualization, abstraction in children (as envisioned in NCF 2005) while at the same time addressing curricular needs?
This paper addresses the question through the use of programming in two rural schools including integration of curricular areas for fractions, cube roots, algebra, compound interest, data handling, geometry, etc.

We explore three styles of instruction - projects for children to demonstrate their understanding, challenges to visualize abstract concepts, and games created by children themselves for mastery.

August 16, 2015

On work and play...

At an educational meeting we went about making a distinction between 'work and play'. The closest I could come up with was that work was an activity being done that is useful for others and play was an activity not meant to be useful. Of course, I knew it was flawed, self-work is useful for others intangibly and for professional cricketers play is actually work. Of course this doesn't start to capture where work and play seem all mixed up! I could not define it in terms of enjoyment as there have been many times when I enjoyed myself being at work and at play.

An incident with the children helped me understand this distinction differently.

While creating an animation of the Earth going around the Sun in an ellipse (with the Moon rotating around the Earth) the children had use the computer to create the solution for ellipse equation they got from geogebra. It was all done and they had created the following animation. 
(If you are having trouble viewing animations please update your flash player).

Here is a short clip of the part where children noticed that the earth was rushing past at the top extreme in the program that they had created.

I had felt that being able to solve a complex algebraic equation was enough of a challenge and the children had already spent a week on this project and would want to move on, but the glitch really bothered the children, they were unsatisfied with what they had created. This created an opportunity for conversation about slopes and how things were changing differently when solving in one part of the curve, but faster in the other part of the curve. That we needed to compensate with more points where things were changing faster. It took another three days till the children were happy with their work and it looked like the one below:

On reflecting on the incident I learnt that its play when you do something that you don't have to. Of course this definition seems obvious when you are at 'play'. But, it applies equally to 'work'. The moments where I felt I had done something special were the moments when I did what I had to, but pondered over it and did something more. There were already solutions and I didn't have to do more, but I made work play and kept going. 

It helped me connect to the idea of the next right answer, the pursuit of excellence in getting an answer and continuing to look makes work play.

What a world we would create if all our children could make their work into play.

August 02, 2015

Copy-Paste (the hard way)...

The children had been thrilled with being able to animate the moon going round the earth and wanted to show the solar system with the earth going round the sun. 

Thanks to Arham I had recently seen a video called Earth's motion around the Sun that indicated some of the complexity from the simplistic info that children had:

We looked at it and the children felt that it would be interesting to get an object to move in an elliptical path and replicate the earth going round the sun.

The circle was more or less straight forward with moving and turning in each step, but an ellipse...I talked to them of using Geogebra to draw the curve they wanted e.g. an ellipse and then "copy-pasting" it in scratch. Of course the issue was not drawing a shape, but to get an object to travel along the curve so it needed to be true to the curve.

I started with a simple case if x+3 = 5, we went over the story and I reminded them that the answer was not important, it was a trivial case and we were trying to get a method that would help the computer do a repeated simple task till it reached a condition. Also to have a simple condition we changed this to the expression x+3-5 and substituted values of x from -3 to 3 to find when the value of the expression goes to zero giving us the correct x.

We then attempted to solve 2x+3=6 i.e. 2x+3-6 and check when it becomes 0. But, it did the following:
For x=-3-->-9 ; x=-2-->-7 ; x=-1-->-5 ; x=0-->-3; x=1-->-1;  
      x =2-->1  ; x=3-->3    ; x=4-->5    ;x=5-->7 ; basically missing 0. What would then be the way of capturing where the answer lies. The idea that came to the children was that the result of the expression changes direction. Naturally, the last result will need to be remembered, but how do we check if something has changed direction. 
I asked them what they had learnt from integers that might help them do so crisply.They could not quite figure out how to go about it and when they couldn't quite connect after struggle I guided them into the product of integers and checking if the result it positive or negative. Of course here we get the closest integer number, but if the equation is large even though we don't have the decimal parts the curve looks good enough.

We then moved to a real equation x+y=3 and for each value of y we swept x...Once it worked for a line we just moved to the curve and only needed to handle the boundary conditions. 

August 01, 2015

Where is the moon now?

One interesting conversation I had recently was asking the children where they expect the moon to be. When we talk about how disruptive technology can be an app line startracker that shows the position of the moon 'right now' gets into a lot of how children think.

From the first answer in the sky to where in the sky then conversations on what happens during the day and night. I asked the same question over time to different children and with the changing position of the moon it enlightned different aspects of learning. Here are some of them:

1) In an initial thought most children thought the moon rises and falls consistently at more of less the same time. So it should be the other side of the earth. But on looking for the moon it was noticed in a very unexpected place. 

We then decided to for the moon and record where we see it and the time we saw it. That was a week before the new moon and a lot of children came back with there was no moon this week, but some others noticed that they saw it in the morning. We talked about sometimes seeing moon even after sunrise and sometimes even before sunset. What this all this mean?
2) Drawing the expected position of the moon and trying to represent meaningful information of a 3 Dsetting in 2D that led to frame of reference direction and directions. This led to discussions of which plane we can draw aka where does the moon rise and set. It was interesting that there was a child in each class who through that once the sun sets in the west the moon rises from the west.

3) While most children disagreed to the above they could not give any convincing argument to their peer other than that's the way it is.
There was some discussion of how the moon rises and sets. We have been talking about differentiating science from information i.e. being able to understand a phenomenon so we can use our understanding to explain another phenomenon.
One of them was understanding the revolution of the earth which explained both the sun and the moon rising from the east.

4) The children got some clue of which of their classmates were conveying useful information regarding their sightings and which were just making stuff up :).

5) Discussions on fractions! Based on where the moon we talked about where the moon would have been ( earth) 12 hrs before 6 hrs before and then the more open ended question of when would the moonrise have been. I say open-ended because it brought up the question of at what degree do we consider it moonrise and what the present angle is...

6) It brought up interest on how to create an animated model of the moon around earth, in fact about the moon and earth around Sun.

7) And then the question, how does the camera see that far in the sky :). 
I moved the discussion to possible ways of doing it including a three axis accelerometer that helps is determine where we are looking + gps + the star map + calculation of the moon and planet movements and how that was a cool way to use math. The children immediately got the wiff that I have switched from anna mode to 'teacher' mode and they started to loose interest. One of them even remarked that then we can't see the man-made satellites. 

I learnt my lesson and decided to keep my agenda of teaching something aside to avoid messing up with their learning. When asked this question the second time by another set of kids  just stuck with, 'no clue, but isn't it cool!'

July 24, 2015


When you get around to doing something the second time...there is always something new that happens to keep things interesting.

Last year I had worked with some 7th graders on integer subtraction by making something move from its current position to a target position. Here is a note on the same

"Children initially tend to understand negative numbers in integers as a loan. However, even a simple situation like 5-(-5)=5+5=10 becomes hard to comprehend. A number line is a better visualization for introducing negative numbers. This happens implicitly when using Scratch as it incorporates the Cartesian coordinate system. A character (sprite) when placed at (0,0) is at the center of the display. Changing x with a positive number takes it to the right correspondingly changing x with a negative number takes it to the left.
As children use a change x function they get a handle of the integers. In time they get curious and check what happens with change y with integers to get a sense of the Cartesian system.

As the children felt more confident they created a simple game with integers: the user needs to give the number to add to take a character from a start location to a target location. Though initially the children put numbers and situations they already knew e.g. two positive numbers start:5, target:10, to add:(10-5)=5. The program would then move from the start to start+to add and check that the result is the target. Once the children are comfortable enough to randomize one and then both the starting point and destination, all possibilities of subtraction scenarios arise e.g. start:10, target:5, to add:(5-10)=-5. They also clearly see the need to move left to get to the target. Similarly, start:-5 target:5 to add:5-(-5)=10 also makes sense as the target is to the right of the object."

The emphasis last time was a bit on programming and getting the strings and numbers to match up well. 

But this time the children were implicitly unconvinced about the motivation of the character (in one case) the crab to move. The crab must have had a reason to have a target, right. So they came up with their reasons. The crab was tired and wanted to sit on a rock!

There were other stories of a diver catching a fish, of a cat catching a mouse, someone looking for a key, etc). The character was at the current location and there was a visible target that the children could see is behind or ahead of the character. This helped them re-look at the result they got to see if it made sense i.e. positive number means the rock should be in ahead and a negative result is a rock behind me.

June 23, 2015

Questions of children

I started a science class once a week with young children in Udavi.

I asked him what science was and the quick answer was experiments, then a study of living beings. I explored if they could tell a living being from a non-living being by creating a rule that we could apply. The children came up with various aspects they could think of it moves (you mean like a fan or car?),  it talks (like a tree?), soon the children got the hang of what was going on a conversation got going where a child would propose a rule and anyone who disagreed would come up with an example of why they disagree that the rule is always valid.

They made a table
Rule for Living and non-living:
Rule              Example(s) of Agreement     Example(s) of disagreement
Breathing      Humans, dogs                         Do plants breath?

It was interesting that even through children said living things - they first associated it with humans, then with animals, then plants and then non-living things....
It also took them some time to think in terms of examples of agreement of disagreement. Some of the children initially wrote living things in the first column and non-living things in the second column which were  in agreement with the hypothesis. It appears more tempting to classify than to see if it is relevant to a rule...

We then moved to questions they had, do plants breath. What is breathing? If its taking oxygen and giving out carbon-di-oxide (like a fire?) then its one answer and if its taking in air its another. This led us to doubts and questions children had and how as humans we are prone to have doubts and are willing to put an effort in resolving these doubts, perhaps, that is what science is. I wanted to hear from each child so we started talking about doubts that children had about the world, here are some of them:
- How can you tell if a fish is male or female?
- Where does an electric eel get its electricity from?
- Why do birds fly and not humans?
- How exactly do gills help fish get oxygen?
- Why do plants use carbon-di-oxide and give oxygen and why do humans do the opposite?
... and then it exploded, everyone had something to ask and add.

I suggested that we make one large list of all of them and go through them. Looks like a nice curriculum for that class to me.

I also noticed there were many fish questions, I wondered if it was natural or because the new building has a pond within it.

June 09, 2015

It takes you 40 yrs to get...

well, of course to 40 yrs of age!

It has also taken me time to figure out that I want to create a learning space of constant growth that makes Science, Math and Engineering natural and fun.

I have already been working on the basis of such a space for the last couple of yrs and now with the team at Aura Auro am ready to create STEM Land.

STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics)  Land will
- Work with over 100 children from multiple schools for 4-5 days a week on Math and Science using hands on work.
- Work to transform the culture of right answer and 'sums' to discussions on approaches and patient problem solving
- Remap curriculum starting from 6-9 grades to activities and projects using technology, puzzles, games, etc
- Serve as a teachers resource center for Math and Science teaching aids and activities

In short provide an alternative model to the current education system.

I need your help in raising funds for STEM Land. My present target is 23 lakhs over the coming year. Here is a detailed concept note on what STEM Land is about and here is the budget for the same.

Please send me an email if you can support the initiative. Donations in India are 100% tax deductible.

Truth and love,

June 07, 2015

What was accomplished this schooling year

Primary work has focused on classroom interventions in mathematics and problem solving in middle school 5th-8th grade. Many abstract concepts are grounded in middle school and if these are missed they leave gaps unfilled resulting in children having an aversion of mathematics and weak problem solving ability.

One of the aspects of work has been in making learning math fun and accessible for children while changing the perception of what mathematics is both for children and teachers. I had used puzzles, games, educational material, construction of models, electronics to make abstract learning tangible and provide application for children. This is documented in detail in the CriticalThinking_Report.pdf.

This academic year I focused on extensive use of technology starting with programming with Scratch with 6th-8th graders and mapping aspects of Math curricula through projects and challenges in programming. Three broad approaches were adopted for Math curricula through programming:
  1. A set challenges for children that involved demonstrating their understanding of abstract concepts visually through programming including fractions, long division, pie charts e.g. demonstrating what it means to add numerator and numerator and denominator with denominator in a fraction and what is a meaningful way to add it.
  2. A set of challenges were based using programming to understand mathematical ideas visually including linear expressions, percentages, simple and compound interest. As an example 5x+10 was graphed as rectangles of varying heights. Then shapes observed by varying the slopes or varying the added constants were observed and interpretations and explanations explored (stair cases of different kinds including making either the slope or constant a random variable, etc). This was then modified to investigate solutions to equations e.g. 5x+10=75 that used the expression and the pictures and paused when the result was reached.
  3. Children created games that helped them understand a concept and then work on rigor to master an aspect including positive and negative integers, cube roots that resulted in two digit numbers. Once children get into the mode of creating their own programs often when the computer is available they do not drift and get carried away and play games, they tend to create them. If this is done step by step with values that they put in place first that they knew the answer of and then randomizing it they still want to be able to better their own programs.
Programming was also used in English to give life into the stories that the children had created by animating them in scratch. We worked on this project with two grades 7th and 8th. The 7th graders had also used programming for math and their results in terms of how elaborate and complex they could make their stories even though they were younger and were attempting the stories the first time as well was interesting.

Beyond Mathematics and English, programming was taken further into sensing the real world using Makey, Makey. This helped children respond to a real life event like touching a plant, water or items with some moisture content (not complete insulators). Using this the children made their own version of a water tank filling alarm and a non-touch (pressure based) burglar alarm. These exercises helped children connect the programming to sensing the real world and think of applications where they can make use of these aspects in real life.

To complete the loop of controlling in the real world we also worked with the Finch robot and controlling the actions of the robot to go around obstacle courses and deliver small paper balls into goal buckets. The most popular game we created was the parking game with a random set of commands that made the robot move around and having to predict where the robot needs to be placed to reach a certain goal. We used this version at a school fair with success.

It should be mentioned that this approach is significantly different from ready-made material available for children like online lectures (those available in local language), or animation videos that are more or less passive. The so-called educational games that attempt to 'replicate' rigor use the same methodology of trying to get a high score used in the traditional system with the same pitfalls e.g. if given a choice children play games that they are already good at to get a higher score rather than stretch themselves with new games.
However, a paradigm shift is made when instead of trying to program the child through the computer, we let the children be in control and program the machine. In the first paradigm the computer is always right, the child is always a user and playing catch-up. In the second the children realize that the computer actually needs to be given step-by-step and can't make the simplest connections on its own.
It changes the dynamics of children using machines and their thought process in how they think of an action and break them down. It also helps children truly appreciate the amount of work that goes into making a computer look smart!

More interestingly the children learn a lot of implicit knowledge and conventions by using them e.g. the Cartesian system when trying to move their objects in the directions needed. Children who feel like failures with test scores in time bound examinations, persevere and feel proud when they are able to demonstrate their learning.

We also used physical technology primarily the DIY bigshot cameras that can be assembled by students and over 60 children from various grades assembled the cameras, took pictures and put them on the computer and then used instructions backwards to disassemble them for the next group to use them. The exercise of group work, reading and comprehending instructions and analyzing the pictures was interesting. The hand crank also gave a context to look into gears, ratios. A lot more could be done in optics, imaging. But, the children were very curious about the 3-D images taken by the camera and experimented quite a bit with depth.

The computer lab at Udavi, Makey, Makey, Bigshot cameras and the finch robot were donated by friends and visitors who saw the impact of technology on children and the interesting mathematics that the children were able to do. Further class notes and work of children is available at (

Just as the response of children to technology is obvious so is the lack of teachers who can play with this interesting resource and engage with children. This was especially true for teachers engaged with village children. As part of filling this gap I founded Aura Auro Design ( in collaboration with Aura Semiconductor Pvt. Ltd. this year. Aura Auro Design works with 3 electronics graduates and trains them in state of the art analog design (5 hrs a day) while engaging them for (3 hrs a day) to work with schools with a focus on learning through technology.
This has created a small team of local skilled and technically savvy youth who are learning and teaching at the same time. Aura Auro makes explicit that every teacher needs to be a learner.

It has also created a team that is working on STEM research in rural India to deliver results beyond what one person is capable of.

May 02, 2015

A year in pictures at Udavi School

Here are a few albums related for the 2014-15 schooling year at Udavi (primarily for the 6th grade), special thanks to Sudhir for the pictures. Click on the pictures to take you to the appropriate albums.

Electronics, makey, makey, battery and magnet based motors.

Makey Makey and water level detection.

Bigshot cameras (assembly, pics taken by the cameras, measuring the voltage of the pathway from the motors to the battery, etc).
6th Grade assembly

7th Grade assembly and pics taken

8th Grade assembly

8th Grade visit to crocodile park trip documented with the bigshot cameras they made

Puzzles and games and interaction with Aura Auro youth
Working with their hands on blocks and building models

Using wooden blocks to understand squares and square roots

End of the year demonstrations set up by children included demonstration of polarity of motors, games based on continuity, resistance (pencil lead extracted by burning out the wood at just the right temperature), makey, makey burgulary alarm. It also had the children perform about the plants in the solar system and build a rocket that moved.

April 20, 2015

If I had wings...

The work with the children in Udavi 8th Grade for their end of the year story called 'if I had wings' felt quite complete. I have already put a note on what I saw in the children when they were looking at their work and about their work itself.

Preparation: For the class project with the 8th graders on if I have wings we first set up the computers to be networked so they could save their data in one place. This helped us back up their files track their progress from one place.

Pairs: I noticed that the boys and girls don't seem to work much with each other and asked the boys and girls to pair up. I also asked them to plan what they wanted to accomplish as the time was short. They were also required to come up with quality criteria.

Day 1:  The class came up with the quality criteria to look at their projects through consensus:
Understandable,  Colorful, Creative, Beautiful, Proper Language, Interesting and Teamwork.

We also had the following agreements - discussion within the group is fine, but disturbing other groups is not ok. If technical assistance is needed you raise your hand. The classes had a little hum going like a bees bussing, but it never got too loud or noisy.

Sundar and I were providing support and we had asked the teacher also to join the children in making her own program.

The technical instruction of the day was on linking to the central computer and to Open and Save files over the network. This itself made a big difference to the children in the project. There appears nothing dampens enthusiasm as the possibility of destruction of your work and being able to build on their work gave them a sense of purpose.

Day 2: The children felt confident that they could get what they wanted to done and we opened up the space for them to access the internet and download images that they might find useful for their project and not limited to images in Scratch.

The instruction of the day was a demo of Gimp, contiguous selection which could help crop backgrounds quickly and help them use characters downloaded from the internet.

There was also instruction on not using the green start flag and using an event instead. All events were named with unique names by using the first two letters of both the children in the group. Similarly all sprites and backgrounds were named by adding the 4 letters to the end to avoid clashes when the programs were merged.

One of the groups went overboard and even named their character in their story the same name as their code names.

Day 3: To bring back focus on the project as some groups were drifting we had a session on feedback for growth. Each group watched what the next group had done and offered increase, decrease and retain feedback on the quality criteria.
There was some concern among us teachers that there is nothing to show yet.

Before the next class we looked at 2 groups who were really struggling and put a few lines of code giving them an idea of how to go about animating.

Day 4: They worked, we supported and kept shuttling around groups. 3 groups were satisfied with their work and called it done. 5 groups were not done.

We agreed to have a Day 5, but decided that the groups who were done would have to take it to the next level and start working on combining files with us.

Day 5: We started combining the files and came up with a much larger list of to dos in individual projects to make merging possible:
1) Append name of sprites, backgrounds with unique name for each group (we used the first two letters of the two children in each group)
2) Make each sprite hide  when the green flag is pressed
3) Each sprite is message driven and each message has the unique name followed by 1, 2, etc.
4) BG changes are also within the sprites (using change background)
5) Make the begin position of each sprite explicit

6) Hide when done

We were able to combine the three projects that were complete and we asked the children to go ahead and join the remaining groups supporting them through this code review and making the work of merging easier.

Day 6: We showed the children their combined work, they did a self assessment for themselves and we also did a survey for the children.

It was interesting to see quite a few children in the survey point to teamwork as a big learning for themselves another was getting what they set out to do done.

April 19, 2015

Wake up, Sanjeev...

Towards the end of the year I was invited by the English teacher at Udavi to do a session for closing the year with the 8th graders with making their stories in scratch.I had worked extensively with technology with the 7th graders for Math and this reflected in their abilities to program and create their stories in English, but a similar project with the 8th graders had not felt complete. She offered 4 classes (of 1 hr 20 min each) to get something whole done. The schedule was very tight and we went over what were our priorities they were to support children in their organization, concentration, determination to get their work done and teamwork. The theme of their work was 'if I had wings' and we wanted them to be able to dream and see it materialize.

The days flowed beautifully and we needed one extra day for 5/8 groups to complete and we working with the 3 group of students who completed to look at what it would take to merge the projects into one class project. The children started to look at reviewing the code to merge the projects.

The next class we looked at the combined project of all the children. It was a 4-1/2 minute animation that had no sound. We started watching the animation. About a minute into the animation I had a Wake up, Sanjeev moment. These are moments that you have when as a teacher something tells you to sit up and take notice about something happening in your class. I realized something magical was happening. The children were concentrating and looking at their work and the work of all their classmates as one drama. Children from the generation that have seen television at it loudest, flashiest and who are often seen as having too much noise were in full concentration in complete silence. Luckly, my wake up call came early enough for me to take a few photographs and then go ahead a record 40 seconds of the magic.

Here is the video of the children watching their work...

and here is their work:

Here is a note on the process we followed in the five days and how it was one of the times when things just flowed and fell in place.

April 07, 2015

A simple square rooting game

At Isai Ambalam a couple of the children I was working intensely with programing graduated, it left a small class of 6th graders and a couple of 8th graders. The youth with AuraAuro took up various classes including my 6th grade. I was left shuttling between classes and the 8th graders. The 8th graders who are still here are not ready for their next grade both in language and math. Taking a leaf from my being independent book they were keen on taking the initiative and learning on their own and asking for help when they needed it. They were working on squares and square roots for a week on their own..., but I realized that they were not quite getting the sense of the numbers. They were doing much drill, making mistakes, but unable to notice their mistakes or having a ball park estimate. 

They are hesitant to program themselves and had relied heavily on their partners who had left school. I asked them if they wanted to the computer as a calculator...they readily agreed (ha!).

Looking around and starting visualization
The sixth graders were drawing the representation of linear expressions like 5x+10 (and then changing the constant or the slope and getting various staircases for positive values of x. I asked the 8th graders if they would like to use scratch as a calculator and do the same for x^2 = x*x. They plotted it along with the linear curves and soon realized the much faster rate of its growth to exceed the screen size. They felt that x^3 should perhaps increase even faster and went ahead and implemented it to find out.

We talked about the possibility of using the computer to find the square roots of numbers by repeated calculating x^2 for numbers starting from 1 and stopping when they reached the numbers as given in the book.

Starting to look at the consecutive squares
We made a very simple program which started with x=1 kept incrementing x it by one and calculating a square (one multiplication per second). Scratch can automatically show the variables of your choice making it easier since we didn't need to program the printing.

They started looking at the results of squares of numbers and basic internalizations that the squares of numbers do increase as numbers increase and start to notice a few basic squares that they knew.

Efficiency of calculation
As we got to 4 digit numbers the time taken by the program was quite a lot and I asked them what could be done to speed up the program without changing 1 multiplication per second. My argument for the constraint was that that much time is required to register the square of a number and I did want them to connect a number to a square.

It took them a little while, but they concluded that we could start with squares of every 10 numbers 10, 20, 30, 40, etc and stop when the number was overshooting, go back one level and then increment by 1 to get to the result.

This reduced the square of 69 from 69 seconds to 7+9=16 seconds. They also started getting a clearer understanding of the ball park of the squares since these were the same as the squares single digit numbers in 100s.

Guessing the result
This brought us to the most interesting part of the book that talked about how you could guess the square root of a perfect square (of a 2 digit number). It talked about getting the 10s place of the number. They could see this from the program the optimized code a number like 2209 needed to be in the 40s as 40^2=1600 and 50^2=2500. It was then a matter of which of the 40s gives the result. 

This brought us to the ones/units place and the fact that there is a clear mapping (two to one at times) between the units of the number and the units of its square, e.g. 2/8 have 4 in the units place, 3/7 have 9, 4/6 have 6, 5 is just 5 and 1/9 have 1. 2,3,7,8 do not come in the units place of a perfect square of an integer. 

Looking at 2209, it could have a square of either 43 or 47. The next choice is determined by whether it is closer to 40^2 (1600) or 50^2 (2500).

The fun with being able to guess something marginally larger than they thought they were originally capable of was that they showed what they could do to the 6th graders who were promptly curious on how this was all done and learnt it too.

This gave them endless fun of resolving the solution and pitting themselves against their program and getting the solution before it did.

March 01, 2015

A new adventure...

It has been an exciting new adventure starting Aura Auro Design and having a team to work with on electronics, math and science. The fun in a team experimenting, learning and teaching at the same time is unparalleled.

There has been constant progress, discovery and fun.

We started the first month as more of a graduate school lab (this is we still call our work space) and finding roots in the schools I have been working with.

The youth spent some time drawing circles in Scratch using three different methods (tangentsCartesian system, polar system) which helped in switching between Cartesian and Polar rigorous as a foundation to learn the theory of communication systems.

We also watched Ted talks, movies and met a few scientists. A sensory scientist trying to understand smell, taste, sensations; a scientist of climate change and one working on earth sciences. 

One Ted talk was by Clifford Stroll was about stoll through everything...a lovely video that took us to look at what we understand by wavelength and how things change as we go to high frequency especially RF design that we need to understand some day...

We have also been learning about fourier series, transforms, laplace transforms, filters, circuit elements resistors, capacitors, inductors. The youth have also been putting up notes on what they understand and have learnt on our blog.

We also attended the Stewardship for the New Emergence workshop that is about personal leadership (stewardship) - understanding oneself, connecting it with what you do and noticing the changes you want manifested in the world and aligning to it...

A lovely thing is that there is nothing basic we cannot talk about either in terms of what we can learn or new ways of looking at what we can work with children with.

We are now moving into the next phase where I stop being a the professor running a grad school lab and we transform the space to a lab for all of us to experiment and try things out (we just fixed an inverter!) look at ways to transform education systems we are part of and  handle our role with Aura Semiconductor Pvt. Ltd. with maturity, intelligence and as a team. 

More adventures coming soon as I restart blogging after a break of a couple of months...

January 10, 2015

Finch flops @ fair

As I was recovering from Dengue I was still weak and could not travel to Udavi. I had however received the Finch robot as a gift from Gaurav. It had been a lot of fun to use it and program it for a task (drop a paper ball into a basket) at the Isai Ambalam school. When Poorna school children visited Isai Ambalam they also had a lot of fun programming the Finch to do such a task.

Udavi school organizes a school fair a day before Christmas and some of the children from Isai Ambalam had gone for it the previous year. This year they were asked to put up a stall and the children decided that they would do a stall with Finch. Given that it was the coolest gadget, we already had it made and just needed to show up. Of course in the dry run of designing a challenge and making it happen with teams in the class it took us half an hour...I took the precaution of going to Udavi a couple of days and introducing working with the Finch. My class at Udavi was even upset that I was letting the Isai Ambalam children set up a stall with Finch, instead of them.

D-day the children put up a stall with the game of asking people to program the Finch to start in one location and park in another while avoiding hitting obstacles. People were happy watching the Finch demo, but not many were biting. Only the children from Udavi who had worked with me gave it a try. Some were curious and watched, but very few were in the frame of mind to give it a shot. Soon the obstacles were removed, the problem made simpler, yet the crowd stayed thin watched a demo and walked away. 

Arham had also come to the fair and I was walking around with him trying out various games - dropping a coin in water to a target, tossing a ball to pass through a hoop, kicking a football through a tire, tumbling a tower with balls, rolling a table tennis ball on two ropes and dropping it into the bucket, hitting a ball coming out of a pipe. I walked back to my team after an hour to realize that they looked exhausted and it was because of lack of interest and the effort it took to write in the program.

I realized that most of the games that didn't involve luck involved prediction...watching something happen and trying to correct to make something else happen. It reminded Daniel Wolpert's very interesting TED talk about how our brains evolved primarily to help us move dexterously through prediction (its a fun talk, well worth the 20 minutes). The ease of prediction and correction was missing in our game and hence not in sync with the rest of the fair. What was fun and exciting in a "serious" classroom setting had fallen flat in the light of "real fun". 

An hour and quarter had almost passed (in a two hour fair) we needed to change the game drastically. The new game was this, a random program was written to make the Finch move around a bit. As a user you needed to predict where to place the Finch in order for two wheels of the finch to come on the parking pad. You had two attempts. Once someone solved the problem the program was changed. 
Having to choose location and orientation alone seemed doable and a fair crowd built up at the stall. You could wait and watch someone did to have a better shot at solving the puzzle, but you took the risk of someone solving it before you.

While most games were running out of steam since children and people had already tried them the Finch stall was heating up. The stall running about 15 mins after the fair stipulated time and children played even though the center where tokens (we gave out on completing the challenge) were exchanged for gifts, had closed.

The fact that the game was salvaged in the end seemed to have stayed with the children as they seemed pretty happy with their stall and wrote about how successful it was once we changed the game. A few Udavi children who had stayed till the end asked me to book the game for them for the next years fair.